CHANGE & A process model of church change as reflected in St. Tom’s Church, Sheffield UK

Bob Whitesel, D.Min. Ph.D., Associate Professor of Missional Leadership, Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, Journal of the Great Commission Research Network, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 2010.

Abstract

This article is an abbreviation of research originally presented to Dr. Eddie Gibbs, Donald McGavran Professor of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. Gibbs has been involved with the church under study for over two decades and lauded the author’s research. The research indicates a five-stage/four-trigger process model of change that may serve as an ecclesial prototype for effective change. The article is presented here in honor of Dr. Eddie Gibbs on his retirement.

Introduction

Though how church change occurs is discussed in Church Growth Movement literature (Whitesel 2007), a holistic process model[1] (Poole 2004:11) of how it takes place is largely missing. Toward envisioning such a model, the purpose of this article is to develop grounded theory (Locke 2001) from an analysis of change within a linked Anglican-Baptist congregation in Sheffield England.

Four Forces of Organizational Change

After examining over 2,000 journal articles on organizational change, theorists Andrew Van de Ven and Marshall Poole have noted that change occurs because one or more of four forces are pushing for change (Poole and Van de Ven 1995). The author has shown elsewhere that these four forces are replicated in ecclesial change (Whitesel 2009). The following is a short overview of these forces.

Life-Cycle Forces

Life-cycle forces push for change because of the organizational life-cycle (Poole 2004:8). Life-cycle forces acknowledge a lock-step process “that is prescribed and regulated by an institutional, natural, or logical program prefigured at the beginning of the cycle” (Van de Ven and Poole 1995:7).

Within Church Growth Movement literature a significant amount of ink has been devoted to life-cycle forces, including: people movements (McGavran 1970:333-372), church planting for denominational survival (McGavran and Arn 1977:92-101), individual church renewal (McGavran and Hunter 1980:59-65), life-stage dynamics (Gibbs 1981:17-48, 364-366) and Schaller’s pioneers vs. homesteaders tension (Schaller 1975:93-96).

Teleological Forces

Teleological theories emphasize forces pushing for change that are a result of “goal formulation, implementation and evaluation” (Poole 2004:7). An “envisioned end state” (ibid.) or goal embraced by constituents moves the organization forward toward change.

Church Growth Movement literature is filled with examples of teleological strategies of goal-setting, including McGavran’s emphasis upon dispelling the “universal fog” that can be pierced by facts and strategic verifiability (McGavran 1970:76-78, 93-102), numerical steps for church growth (e.g. McGavran and Arn 1977:15-115), and many of the tactical conventions of Lyle Schaller, a former city-planner (Schaller 1975:97-104, 107-110, 137-141, 184-187).

Dialectic Forces

Here “an opposing thesis and antithesis … collide to produce a synthesis” (Poole 2004:7). The process is cyclical, whereby the initial synthesis “in time becomes the thesis for the next cycle of dialectical progression” (ibid.). These forces are best dealt with through conflict resolution tools.

An analysis of the major writings of the Church Growth Movement reveals the conflict resolution segment is under represented (Whitesel 2007:9). Some references are apparent, including Wagner’s admonition to “plan a considerable portion of your time for trouble-shooting and problem solving” (Wagner 1976:200) and Schaller’s interventionist framework (Schaller 1997:111-125, 139-149).

Evolutionary Forces

Evolutionary forces are forces that push for change because some program or idea is working, and this tactic becomes the prescriptive solution for other churches. (Poole 2004:7).

Within Church Growth Movement literature strategic programs that work in influential churches (e.g. mega-churches, etc.) can lead to a popularity for evolutionary strategies. Most notable may be Willow Creek Community Church’s seeker-strategies (Hybels and Hybels 1995) and Rick Warren’s purpose-driven ecclesial strategies (Warren 1995).

A Time Line of A Change Event At St. Thomas’s Church

The Change Under Scrutiny

The change chosen for scrutiny was the rapid locational and organizational change that St. Thomas’ underwent the leaders received notice that within days they must vacate the facility due to asbestos. As a congregation of 2,000 meeting weekly in Sheffield’s largest indoor venue, simply moving to a bigger locale was not feasible. In addition, the rapidity of the move would not allow a new facility to be constructed or converted. The result was that St. Thomas’ had only a matter of days to inaugurate a strategy, implement change and then maintain ecclesial effectiveness while holding true to their theology and polity.

A Timeline of Change

The following timeline was created from personal interviews (Whitesel 2005, 2006, 2009), as well as books written by leaders of St. Thomas’ (Breen 1997, 2004; Mallon 2003; Hopkins and Breen 2007).

1978                                        Renovations at St. Thomas’ forces it to share facilities with Crookes Baptist Church (Mallon 2003:20).

1980                                        Renovations at St. Thomas’ are completed and St Thomas’ moved back to their original facility (Mallon 2003:20).

1981                                        After missing synergies from their partnership the two churches dialogue about merger (Mallon 2003:20).

1982                                        St. Thomas’ became a joined Anglican and Baptist Church (Mallon 2003:20).

1983                                        Robert Warren became Rector of St. Thomas’ and senior leader of the Local Ecumenical Project or LEP (Warren 1989).

Fall 1985                                 John Wimber, leader of the network of Vineyard Churches, conducted a series of renewal meetings at the church’s request (Gibbs and Bolger 2005:82). Soon after, Robert Warren invited a local charismatic community, the Nairn Street Community, to conduct a 9 p.m. postmodern worship celebration on Sunday nights. This became known as the Nine O’clock Service (NOC) which has been called the “birth of a postmodern worshipping community” in the UK (ibid.).[2]

October 1993                          Warren resigned to work with the Anglican denomination (Mallon 2003:25). Paddy Mallon became the Baptist minister of the LEP (ibid., p. 26). Mike Breen accepted the call to St. Thomas’ and sensed the Lord underscoring the word “Ephesus” in his prayer life. Breen noticed that Ephesus (Acts 19) had several unique and representative characteristics (Mallon 2003:26):

  1. It was the principal city of the region.
  2. Paul trained local leaders in a rented building.
  3. Leaders went out from Ephesus to plant churches at Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Sardis, Laodicea and Colosse.
  4. From Ephesus, “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20).

Breen concluded that, “the church of St. Thomas’ was to function as a resource to its city and region. It was to be a base for church planting and mission and a centre for teaching and training” (Breen 1997:25).

March 1994                            Breen introduced a discipleship program based upon six icons, eventually calling it Lifeshapes (Mallon 2003:18, 25). Mallon credits Lifeshapes as “the most fundamental change in this period … an easily transferable method of planned, disciplined and structured membership activity, at a person as well as a corporate level …” (ibid.).

1994 – 1996                             Management style under Breen moved from a consensus-modality model of Warren (Mallon 2003:27), into a more directive “manager as planner and strategist” (Jones, George, and Hill 2000:234-243). Approximately 200 people left during the first months (Mallon 2003:28).

1998                                        The New Apostolic Churches (Wagner 1998) has a profound effect upon St. Thomas’ leadership structure, leading to an even more centralized apostolic paradigm (Mallon 2003:29-30; Breen 2004). Maconochie recalls, “basically Mike as a CEO kind of guy, helped us through it all. Although he was very delegating in terms of responsibility for clusters and things, he was the main person we processed (things) through …” (Maconochie 2007:5).

However, when a major church decision was needed more modality was practiced, with Maconochie recalling “we’d move back toward more of a Baptist (consensus) model where we’d actually have a church meeting and everybody would vote on it” (Maconochie 2007:6).

September 1998                      Leaders of St. Thomas’ began to sense that the size of their facilities was “restricting growth” (Mallon 2007:1). St. Thomas’ began to meet in a “leisure centre” called the Logos Centre one Sunday each month (Mallon 2007:4). Since the venue was more accessible for unchurched people than the parish church, growth among unchurched attendees increased. The temporary nature of the facility was fostered in part because the facility was only available 35 Sundays a year, it was expensive to rent, and much labor and time was spent in setup and teardown (Mallon 2003:36).

January 2000                          The Roxy nightclub became available for rent, and appeared to overcome the sociological strangulation of the leisure center. Media attention was fostered because The Roxy had been a bawdy concert venue, and by mid-February 400 people were added to the church (Mallon 2003:36-37). “I think what we saw was every time we created space people joined us,” recalled Mallon. “some of that was transfer growth, but a lot of it was conversionary growth” (Mallon 2007:4).

Sunday mornings at The Roxy attracted Baby Boomers, while Sunday evenings attracted Generation X. Services also continued at the parish church in Crookes and were attended by approximately 300 people committed to the local Crookes parish (Mallon 2003:36-37).

Almost without strategic intent, St. Thomas’ had evolved into multiple sub-congregations (Hunter 1979:63; Whitesel and Hunter 2001:26-27). They designated these sub-congregations “celebrations” after a used Pete Wagner (1976:101-2). Three celebrations emerged, each with different cultural patrons: Sunday morning (Boomer) at The Roxy, Sunday evening (Gen. X) at the Roxy, and Sunday morning at the Crookes parish church (Crookes neighborhood of Sheffield).

2000-2001                               The three Celebrations were comprised of “Clusters” of three to seven small groups. These clusters began to reduplicate themselves among (Mallon 2003:37):

  1. Students,
  2. The Café culture,
  3. Inner-city areas,
  4. Generation X singles,
  5. Generation X married couples.

January 2001                          Mike Breen senses God saying, “What would you do if I took away the Roxy?” (Mallon 2003:38; Breen 2007:1-2). “I was in a bit of a panic about that,” recalled Breen. “Because we had just been surveyed with the rest of the churches in Great Britain…. as being the largest church in Great Britain at that time. So most certainly we were a mega-church. And, it felt like God was giving me the option of really going in the mega-church direction or really embracing this thing he had been developing in us the last few years” (Breen 2007:2).

Breen still saw this as God’s nudging toward planting clusters as missional communities, something that they had always intended. “We already had begun by that stage to realize that we were being confined, as we had been at the parish church, by the size of the building and that was restricting growth,” stated Mallon. “So then what we did was we began to think about planting out the clusters” (Mallon 2007:1).

A leadership structure developed, with leaders of celebrations (culturally similar groups of clusters) reporting to Breen or other senior staff. Operating underneath celebration leaders were cluster leaders who oversaw a network of small group leaders (Breen 2007:2).

However, moving from the seemingly successful and comfortable mega-church event-orientation that The Roxy fostered still gave cause for hesitancy (Mallon 2003:38) and even group exit behavior (Maconochie 2007:3).

December 2001                       An attendee who had concerns about the safely of the “torpedo-style heaters” used to heat The Roxy contacted the local authorities requesting a safety inspection (Mallon 2003:39; Calladine 2007:14-15). A subsequent inspection revealed that asbestos rendered The Roxy an immediate health hazard (Calladine 2007:4). “If we were going to do the work on the building that we wanted to, we would have had to put a bubble over the building and put people in space suits” remembered Calladine. “It would have cost around $7 million to renovate…that building is still standing there unoccupied. Anybody who’s going to do anything to that building is going to have to spend huge amounts. We could’ve come up with 60 thousand, but it’s 60 thousand into a money pit …” (Calladine 2007:4).

“…One minute we were in the building and basically several weeks later we were out because we had to close immediately due to the health and safety issues” remembered Woodhead (Woodhead 2007:2). Though this event occurred just before Christmas 2001, the leaders were able to negotiate a five week grace period before they were forced to leave (Mallon 2007:2).

Communicating the venue change to a large congregation flowed effectively through of the celebration-cluster-cell structure. “…The most effective way of communication was … through four phone calls” recalled Calladine (Calladine 2007:4). The Rector would (1) call the Celebration Leaders, who would (2) call the Cluster leaders, who would then call (3) the small group leaders, who would then call (4) all small group attendees.

In addition, Maconochie recounts the spiritual preparation for this change, stating “We’d been talking about it for nearly a year and so we just said to the guys ‘well the Lord said it was going to happen and it has happened and there you go’.” (Maconochie 2007:2). Woodhead added, “So he’d (Breen) already shared that with the staff team, the senior staff and then the staff team and some of the cluster leaders were aware of this word. But was it going to happen? We don’t know because we’ve got this building and then that was it … it was taken away so they (the leaders) were ready to go” (Woodhead 2007:2).

January 27, 2002                    The last celebration was held in The Roxy (Calladine 2007:15) with 17 clusters commissioned to begin meeting the following week to replace the Sunday gatherings at The Roxy (Mallon 2003:39). The emphasis from the weekly Roxy events, to a weekly cluster meeting, democratized the process according to Woodhead, for “people had to really begin to sort things out for themselves. They couldn’t depend on the center for everything. So leadership took on much more of a dynamic, much more of a community (that) ‘we’re in this together’ for each cluster. ‘We’ve got to go out and find the venues. And, we’re looking to see what God’s heart is for this particular area.’ So there was a whole different dynamic it seemed to me when guys were reporting back” (Woodhead 2007:1).

February 3, 2002                    17 clusters are planted throughout Sheffield as St. Thomas’ takes on a “dispersed church” mode (Mallon 2007:3). The Bishop gave permission for clusters to meet within the boundaries of other Anglican parishes (Mallon 2007:2-3).

2002                                        The Diocesan Handbook of Sheffield indicates the average Anglican parish has 25 worshippers (Mallon 2003:36).

2003                                        St. Thomas’ Church now has 34-35 clusters (Mallon 2007:4; Breen 2007:2) with (Mallon 2003:36):

  1. 2,500 members,
  2. 85 percent under the ages of 40,
  3. 298 identify themselves as Anglicans,
  4. 188 identify themselves as Baptists.

Mallon believes this one year period was “the greatest growth we saw as a church. It showed us what we weren’t going to go down the mega-church road, which was an option. And when we had The Roxie, a plan was to make it a large worship complex that would have been glass and chrome and glitter. And now, we were spared all of that” (Mallon 2007:4).

Still, this considerable growth was a surprise. Mallon recalls, “Even developing the resources for the clustering for the six months beforehand, we had no idea we would double in size in terms of cluster leaders in the subsequent 12 months that we were in a dispersed mode. It’s a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6).

A Process Model of Change At St. Thomas’ Church

A Process Model.

The following process model follows the congregation from a gathered congregation, into a dispersed cluster-orientated congregation. The triangles replace the customary rectangle of process models. At St. Thomas’ the triangle represents an interconnected triad of spiritual holism: UP-IN-OUT ministry (Mallon 2003; Breen 2004, 2005). Hopkins and Breen describe this triangle as the “glue or essence” of their organizational structure (Hopkins and Breen 2007). Arrows signify “trigger events” that push the organization forward toward change (per Trigger Theories, e.g. Pondy 1967, Worchel 1998 and Dyke and Starke 1999).WHITESEL Figure 3 St. Toms GCRJ.jpgStage 1, Program System

The pastorate of Robert Warren (1983-1993) molded the church into an increasingly program system of organizational behavior (Maconochie 2007:5-6). Twenty percent of the congregants support the burgeoning programs above them, often with resultant burnout. Mallon describes this period as a consensus model of leadership, that became “stifled, impaired and over-bureaucratic” (Mallon 2003:27). Hopkins and Breen’s inverted triangle of Figure 4 suggests an unstable organizational behavior.

WHITESEL Figure 4 St. Toms GCRJ.jpg

Trigger 1, Ephesus Leadership

Breen’s emphasis upon the word “Ephesus” (Mallon 2003:26) began to move the leadership toward a more teleological style (Breen 1997:25). The first trigger (arrow) in Figure 3 indicates the four forces pushing in the following ranked order:

  1. Dialectic forces are the most powerful forces pushing for change, as Breen begins a steady yet measured process (Breen 2007:6) of acquainting leaders, congregants and attendees with a new church model based upon the church at Ephesus.
  2. Life-cycle forces next affect change, as Breen emphasizes a new era of church life is emerging (Breen 2007:2).
  3. Evolutionary forces are exemplified in Breen’s wide range of readings (Breen 2007:4), basing his leadership model upon Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager (Mallon 2003),
  4. Teleological forces did not appear to play a significant role, as goals are downplayed in lieu of a reorientation in vision.

Breen begins to “tip” the congregational behavior system (in a counterclockwise rotation in Figure 3) from the point-down perspective toward an upright configuration. But first it must rotate through the horizontal (point to the right) configuration of a mission movement (Hopkins and Breen 2007:70).

Stage 2, Emerging/Organic Leadership

The congregation moves into a growth stage, with increasing numbers requiring stronger sodality leadership (Wagner 1984:141-165). Though small groups and clusters are integrated, increasingly the leaders are required to be primary decision makers. Maconochie remembers, “basically Mike, as a CEO kind of guy, helped us through it all. Although he was very delegating in terms of responsibility for clusters and things, he was the main person we processed (things) through” (Maconochie 2007:5).

Trigger 2, The Roxy is Available

The Roxy becomes available and expands St. Thomas’ ministry. To the leaders it appears that “every time we created space people joined us,” (Mallon 2007:4). At Trigger 2 the four forces occur in the following ranked order:

  1. Teleological forces push the church to change as The Roxy must be adapted and utilized. Examples such as the noisy torpedo-heaters, safety issues and other administrative objectives are required to effectively utilize Sheffield’s largest venue.
  2. Dialectic forces remain strong as Breen and others seek to maintain the unity and missional faithfulness by emphasizing a structure of small groups (cells) and clusters (Mallon 2007:6).
  3. Life-cycle forces decline, as the church sees teleological and dialectical issues coming to the forefront. Yet, life-cycle forces are still evident, as the church moves into what congregants perceive as a new stage in the church’s life, one that resembles a mega-church.
  4. Once much of the organizational foundation has been laid, evolutionary forces seem to wane as leaders have few external models to follow (Maconochie 2007:3).

 Stage 3, Organic/Emerging System

The growing size of the new congregation now continues to “tip” the triangle (continuing a counterclockwise rotation) from the forward sodality leadership style of Stage 2, into a more organic structure with broader participation by volunteers. This broadening of the base (e.g. more cell leaders and cluster leaders are needed) is required by the size of the growing congregation. As a result, cells and clusters receive an increasing emphasis, a factor that would prepare the church for the next trigger, the loss of The Roxy. God prepares Breen personally for the loss of The Roxy (Breen 2007:1-2).

Trigger 3, The Roxy is No Longer Available

Though warned the loss of The Roxy venue came with amazing speed. Within one month (the end of December 2001 to the end of January 2002) the church was in the dispersed mode. Forces that occurred (in ranked strength) are:

  1. The rise in teleological goal-setting by volunteer cluster leaders, democratized the process and heightened teleological change forces.
  2. The sense that the church was moving into the long-awaited dispersed stage gave the sense of a prophetic life-cycle (Maconochie 2007:2).
  3. Evolutionary forces now become more important as leaders sought to grapple with the implications of leading a distributed church. Administrative goals, such as how to collect the offering, etc. became increasingly important (Calladine 2007:7-8; Mallon 2007:10).
  4. Because of the leadership’s high-commitment / low-control style of leadership (Maconochie 2007:5), dialectic forces were not a major factor, as those who did not support the new vision went elsewhere.

Stage 4, Organic System

St. Thomas’ now emerges in much the same form it exhibits today (see Figure 5).WHITESEL Figure 5 St. Toms GCRJ.jpg

In Figure 5, the largest part of the church, represented by the broad base, connects with its indigenous context. In addition, the leaders in Figure 5, represented by the 20%, function as strategic managers looking toward the long-range future and planning of the church.

Trigger 4, (Ongoing) Dissemination

This ability of the 20% to be strategic thinkers and to focus on long-range vision has permitted St. Thomas’ to send its leaders around the globe to share their experience.

  1. Evolutionary forces come to the fore for the first time, since the strategies and systems created at St.. Thomas’ provide a model for similar congregations. Breen’s success as a writer, as well as the designer of Lifeskills, now Lifeshapes,© is testimony to the evolutionary forces now at work. Mallon’s writings have likewise helped disseminate what was learned in Sheffield. The popularity of their Visitors’ Week is also an indication to the evolutionary forces at play.
  2. A teleological emphasis upon measuring the church’s growth indicates that teleological goal-orientation forces still have significant influence.
  3. Life-cycle forces play a smaller, yet important role, as Breen, Mallon and Visitors’ Week help churches on the downward side of their life-cycle (Mallon 2003:76-95, Breen 1997, 2004).
  4. Finally, because dialectic forces do not usually play a significant role once a church has reputation for a particular tactic, dialectic forces are now less influential.

Stage 5, Organic System

             St. Thomas’ Church of Sheffield can be viewed today as an example of ecclesial change that is founded upon an evangelistic ethos, wed with a developing and integrated organizational management structure. Within this management structure a process model for change has emerged that deserves consideration as much as does St. Thomas’ insights on clusters (Hopkins and Breen 2007; Mallon 2003) or Lifeshapes© (Breen 1997). It is the writer’s hope that this process model can provide another view of the interplay of change forces and their involvement in church change.

Questions for Further Research

Question 1: Does the process model described above bear resemblance to processes found in other large postmodernal and organic congregations? A case study comparison between Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, Calif. and Mar’s Hill in Grandville, Mich. might inform further discussion.

Question 2: Does this process model overly emphasize the importance of dialectic powers due to this change taking place in a long-standing Anglican congregation? An investigation of newly planted postmodernal and organic congregations such as The Bridge in Phoenix or Scum of the Earth in Denver might inform this research.

Question 3: What are the cultural ramifications of an English congregation as an church case study? In his responses, Breen downplayed the effect of dialectic forces because he sees English spirituality as so unpopular, that congregants who align with an evangelic church in the UK have already made a cultural break with popular expectations (Breen 2007:5). To what degree does a hostile, indifferent or unacquainted culture bear upon change forces, especially dialectical forces?

Question 4: Does the size of a congregation make certain forces for change more prevalent and/or powerful? In other words, are teleological forces more prevalent/powerful in larger congregations where professionals are expected to operate as strategic leaders. Note how this occurred at St. Thomas’ in Stage 2. A study of postmodernal and organic congregations of varying size, such as the sol café in Edmonton, Alberta along with Bluer of Minneapolis and Solomon’s Porch in Minnesota might inform grounded theory development on this topic.

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Whitesel, Bob. 2003. Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change (And What You Can Do About It). Nashville: Abingdon Press.

———. 2004. Growth by Accident, Death by Planning: How NOT To Kill a Growing Congregation. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

———. 2004. Organizational Behavior. In The Church Leader’s MBA: What Business School Instructors Wished Church Leaders Knew About Managment: unpublished manuscript.

———. 2005. The Perfect Cluster: For Young Adults, St. Tom’s, Sheffield Creates Extended Families, And Everyone Knows Where They Fit. Outreach Magazine, May/June 2005, 112-114.

———. 2006. Build Your Church on Its Core Competencies. Church Executive, September, 2006, 48-49.

———. 2006. Inside The Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

———. 2007. Organic Change: 12 Emerging Communities of Missional Theologians. The Journal of the American Society for Church Growth 18:3-16.

———. 2007. Toward a Holistic and Postmodernal Theory of Change: The Four Forces Model of Change as Reflected in Church Growth Literature. The Journal of the American Society for Church Growth forthcoming.

———. 2008. Preparing For Change Reactions: How To Introduce Change To Your Church. Indianapolis, Ind.: The Wesleyan Publishing House.

———. 2009. The Four Forces of Change As Observed in Postmodern Ecclesial Contexts. Unpublished dissertation presented to Fuller Theological Seminary: Pasadena, Calif.

Whitesel, Bob, and Kent R. Hunter. 2001. A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Winter, Ralph D. 1974. The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission. Missiology: An International Review:121-139.

Woodhead, Mick. 2007. Personal Communication: Appendix 2. Sheffield, England, June 14, 2007.

Worchel, Stephen. 1998. A Development View of the Search for Group Identity. In Social Identity: International Perspectives, edited by S. Worchel, W. L. Wood and J. A. Simpson. London: Sage.

Yukl, G. 1990. Managerial Practices Survey. Albany, NY: Gary Yukl and Manu Associates.

[1] Poole tenders a helpful definition that a “process theory is a series of events that unfold through time to bring about some outcome” (2004:11).

[2] A autocratic management structure eventually led the NOS into schism. For an insightful look into the forces involved, as well as the NOS’s cultural influence see Gibbs and Bolger 2005: 82-85.

Speaking hashtags: #Kingwood2018 #GCRN #GCRJ GCRN GCRJ

CASE-STUDY & From Gathered to Scattered, St. Tom’s Church in Sheffield, UK

(The following is excerpted from Bob Whitesel’s chapter, “St. Tom’s: From Gathered to Scattered” in Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibb’s book, Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions [Baker Academic, 2012]).

From Gathered to Scattered: a Dispersed Missional Structure Results in England’s Largest Anglican Congregation

 by Bob Whitesel

Dr. Eddie Gibbs has been involved as a member and board member of St. Thomas Anglican Church (Sheffield, England) for over two decades. As a PhD student under Eddie Gibbs, I studied the rapid change that St. Thomas underwent when the leaders had only five weeks to vacate their church facility due to asbestos. As England’s largest Anglican church with a congregation of 2,000 meeting weekly in Sheffield’s largest indoor arena, simply moving to a bigger locale was not feasible. The rapidity of the move would not allow a new facility to be constructed or converted. The result was that a congregation where 85% of the attendees were under the age of 40 had only a matter of days to inaugurate a strategy, implement change and maintain ministry effectiveness while holding true to their theology and values. The result was that not only did St. Thomas expand its cultural pluralism though a creative dispersed model, but it also created unity amid hybridity. Yet, the seed for this change was planted many years earlier.

COMMENT by Bob Whitesel

I have seen few churches embrace a scattered model without being forced to do so. This may be due to the establishment of fiefdoms that so often characterize ecclessial movements. I and other researchers would welcome examples of churches that are proactively disperseing from a mega-model to a scattered-approach. Bob Whtiesel

From Gathered to Scattered to Gathered: A History[1]

A Yoked Congregation

In 1978 renovations at St. Thomas’ forced it to share facilities with Crookes Baptist Church. In 1982 the two churches became a yoked Anglican and Baptist Congregation designed a Local Ecumenical Project or LEP (Mallon 2003:20).s

In 1983 Robert Warren became Rector of St. Thomas. Two years later John Wimber, leader of the network of Vineyard Churches, conducted a series of renewal meetings at Warren’s request. Soon after, Robert Warren invited a local charismatic community, the Nairn Street Community, to conduct a 9 p.m. alternative worship celebration on Sunday nights (Warren 1989). This became known as the Nine O’clock Service (NOC) which has been called the “birth of a postmodern worshipping community” in the UK (Gibbs and Bolger 2005:82).

Mike Breen’s Leadership.

In October 1993 Warren resigned to work with the Anglican denomination and Paddy Mallon became the Baptist minister of the LEP (Mallon 2003:25-26). Soon after Mike Breen accepted the call to St. Thomas’ and sensed the Lord underscoring the word “Ephesus” in his prayer life. Breen emphasized to the congregation that in Acts 19 Ephesus had several unique characteristics (Mallon 2003:26): it was the principal city of the region, Paul trained local leaders in a rented building, leaders went out from Ephesus to plant churches in neighboring areas, and from there “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20). Breen concluded that, “the church of St. Thomas’ was to function as a resource to its city and region. It was to be a base for church planting and mission and a centre for teaching and training” (Breen 1997:25).

In March 1994 Breen introduced an icon-based training program based of Biblical principles eventually calling it Lifeshapes (Mallon 2003:18, 25). The six icons of the training tool were readily adopted by the expanding base of small “cell” groups. Mallon credits Lifeshapes as “the most fundamental change in this period … an easily transferable method of planned, disciplined and structured membership activity, at a person as well as a corporate level …” (ibid.). Small group participation was also expected. “In the UK it is different,” stated Johanna Saxton, one of the early leaders. “It is not popular to be part of a church in the post-Christian culture of the UK. So if you are going to get involved, you get involved all the way and you attend a small group” (Saxton 2011).

In 1996 the leaders combined three to seven small groups into what they called “clusters” to better manage the burgeoning small group network (Saxton 2011). Clusters gave the small groups an “extended-family” feel providing a social gathering larger than a small group, but still smaller than the church-wide meetings (Mallon 2003:37-43). To the surprise of St. Tom’s leaders, most evangelism now took place through the semi-autonomous environment of the clusters (Hopkins and Breen 2007:38-39). Clusters also become the social action arm of the church. Breen reflected, “If you say you are going to help someone in need, say paint their house; and a small group of 12-16 people plans to do this, you only get 3-4 people showing up. It’s a disaster. But, if you cluster together three to seven small groups to do this, you get a couple dozen showing up. Then you get something done!” (Breen 2007).

An Anglican Mega-church

In September 1998 leaders began to sense that the size of the parish facilities was “restricting growth” (Mallon 2007:1). To alleviate this problem, the congregation held services one Sunday each month in a community center (Mallon 2007:4). Because the venue was more accessible for unchurched people than the parish facility, growth among unchurched attendees increased. The temporary nature of the facility was fostered in part because the facility was only available 35 Sundays a year, it was expensive to rent, and much labor and time was spent in setup and teardown (Mallon 2003:36).

In January 2000 The Roxy nightclub became available for lease, and appeared to overcome the sociological strangulation of the community center. Media attention was fostered because The Roxy had been a bawdy concert venue. In one month 400 people joined the church (Mallon 2003:36-37). “I think what we saw was every time we created space people joined us,” recalled Mallon. “Some of that was transfer growth, but a lot of it was conversionary growth” (Mallon 2007:4).

Three different worship expressions drew three different audiences. Sunday mornings at The Roxy mainly attracted Baby Boomers, while Sunday evenings attracted Generation X. Services also continued at the parish church in Crookes and were attended by approximately 300 people committed to the local Crookes parish (Mallon 2003:36-37). Almost without strategic intent, St. Thomas’ had evolved into multiple sub-congregations (Hunter 1979:63; Whitesel and Hunter 2001:26-27). They designated these sub-congregations “celebrations” after a term used by C. Peter Wagner (1976:101-2).

From Mega-church to Dispersed-church

In January 2001 Mike Breen sensed God saying to him, “What would you do if I took away The Roxy?” (Mallon 2003:38; Breen 2007:1-2). “I was in a bit of a panic about that,” recalled Breen. “Because we had just been surveyed with the rest of the churches in Great Britain…. as being the largest church in Great Britain at that time. So most certainly we were a mega-church. And, it felt like God was giving me the option of really going in the mega-church direction or really embracing this thing he had been developing in us the last few years” (Breen 2007:2).

In December 2001 an attendee who had concerns about the safely of the “torpedo-style heaters” used to heat The Roxy contacted the local authorities requesting a safety inspection (Mallon 2003:39; Calladine 2007:14-15). A subsequent inspection revealed that asbestos rendered The Roxy an immediate health hazard (Calladine 2007:4). “If we were going to do the work on the building that we wanted to, we would have had to put a bubble over the building and put people in space suits” remembered Calladine. “It would have cost around $7 million to renovate…We could’ve come up with 60 thousand, but it’s 60 thousand into a money pit …” (Calladine 2007:4).

“One minute we were in the building and basically several weeks later we were out because we had to close immediately due to the health and safety issues” remembered Woodhead (Woodhead 2007:2). Though this event occurred just before Christmas 2001, the leaders were able to negotiate a five week grace period before they were forced to leave (Mallon 2007:2).[2]

Maconochie recounts the spiritual preparation for this change, stating “We’d been talking about it for nearly a year and so we just said to the guys ‘well the Lord said it was going to happen and it has happened and there you go’.” (Maconochie 2007:2). Woodhead added, “So he’d (Breen) already shared that with the staff team, the senior staff and then the staff team and some of the cluster leaders were aware of this word. But was it going to happen? We don’t know because we’ve got this building and then that was it … it was taken away so they (the leaders) were ready to go” (Woodhead 2007:2).

On January 27, 2002 the last celebration was held in The Roxy with 17 clusters commissioned to begin meeting the following week to replace the two Sunday gatherings at The Roxy (Mallon 2003:39, Calladine 2007:15). The diffusion from two weekly Roxy events to 17 weekly cluster meetings, democratized the process according to Woodhead, for “people had to really begin to sort things out for themselves. They couldn’t depend on the center for everything. So leadership took on much more of a dynamic, much more of a community (that) ‘we’re in this together’ for each cluster. ‘We’ve got to go out and find the venues. And, we’re looking to see what God’s heart is for this particular area.’ So there was a whole different dynamic it seemed to me when guys were reporting back” (Woodhead 2007:1).

Growth as a Dispersed Church

On February 3, 2002 17 clusters, meeting weekly, were planted throughout Sheffield as St. Thomas’ takes on a “dispersed church” mode (Mallon 2007:3). The Bishop gave permission for clusters to meet within the boundaries of other Anglican parishes (Mallon 2007:2-3). That same year, the Diocesan Handbook indicated the average Anglican parish in Sheffield has 25 worshippers (Mallon 2003:36). One year later St. Thomas’ Church had 34-35 clusters (Mallon 2007:4; Breen 2007:2) comprised of 2,500 members with 85 percent under the ages of 40 (Mallon 2003:36):

In one year the church had morphed into a network of 34-35 small churches meeting across Sheffield. Mallon believes this one year period was “the greatest growth we saw as a church. It showed us what we weren’t going to go down the mega-church road, which was an option. And when we had The Roxy, a plan was to make it a large worship complex that would have been glass and chrome and glitter. And now, we were spared all of that” (Mallon 2007:4).

This growth surprised the leaders. Mallon recalls, “Even developing the resources for the clustering for the six months beforehand, we had no idea we would double in size in terms of cluster leaders in the subsequent 12 months that we were in a dispersed mode. It’s a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6).

By 2005 the church was comprised of a network of clusters, which in turn were joined together into seven “celebrations,” including Connect (ministry to young adults), Encompass (ministry to specific neighborhoods), Mother Church (the original church in the Crookes area), Community Church at Crookes (an urban outreach based in Crookes), Expression (outreach to college students led by Johanna Saxton), Radiate (ministry to young professionals in the workplace), and The Forge (inner city ministry). The diversity of celebrations allowed the church to reach out to Sheffield’s diverse population. The dispersed model created a multi-cultural church by emphasizing culturally and aesthetically different celebrations united within one church organization.

A Rhythm From Dispersed to Gathered to the Present

In 2006, sensing that unity was needed among the seven culturally diverse celebrations, the leaders created a Sunday evening “uniting” worship service. Leadership and worship teams from the different celebrations were rotated each week, allowing attendees from other celebrations to hear testimonies, music and preaching from the culturally distinct celebrations.

In 2009 the availability of a large warehouse provided an alternative to the often packed Sunday evening unity gatherings. This space also compelled the leaders to combine celebrations on Sunday morning. Soon, the church no longer had more than seven Sunday morning celebrations but only two: the warehouse celebration (increasingly identified as the “Philadelphia Campus” to which the Baptist leaders and congregants were attracted) and the “Crookes Campus” (e.g. the Mother Church). With this contraction into fewer culturally distinct celebrations, the church may have contracted into what Mallon described as a rhythm where, “it’s a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6).

Recently, the church has functionally returned, if not officially, into two, possibly three congregations: The Anglican St. Thomas Church (at the Mother Church venue) and the Philadelphia Church (at the Philadelphia Warehouse) along with a new experiment called “city:base,” an emerging urban congregation. Though attempts have been made to maintain a degree of unity, for instance with the commissioning of Anglican Vicar Anne MacLaurin as a leader with Baptist Paul Maconochie at The Philadelphia Church, the church is moving back toward 2-3 distinct mega-congregations. The remarkable growth appears to have subsided, perhaps as a result of fewer culturally distinct celebrations, though according to Saxton the ministry to youth continues to flourish (Saxton 2011).

Lessons from the Dispersed Model of Church

Worship in Dispersion

In just five weeks in 2001-2002 St. Thomas morphed from what one leader describes as “going down the mega-church road” (Mallon 2007:4) to an indigenous network of 17 “clusters” which resembled small churches. One year later there were 34-35 of these clusters dispersed throughout Sheffield. The organizational complexity of the move also forced the church to link culturally similar clusters together into what they called “celebrations.” These then created a multi-cultural church with nine different worship expressions.

Lessons to replicate:

Multiple worship expressions exist in the same church, allowing the church to connect with more cultures. By linking together two to eight clusters into “celebrations” the church was able to eventually offer nine culturally distinct styles of worship. This connected the church to more cultures within the Sheffield community.

Unity gatherings emerge as venues for creating unity amid diversity. The Sunday uniting service exposed the burgeoning congregation to its various cultural counterparts.

Lessons to avoid:

Facilities can undercut multiple worship options. When the Philadelphia Warehouse became available, a push to fully utilize this facility steered the church toward fewer worship celebrations. This is not too dissimilar to churches across England and North America who build a bigger facility and then combine multiple worship expressions into fewer options with fewer cultural styles.

The energy created at large worship gatherings can undermine diversity. St. Thomas’ “uniting service” was even more animated than the other celebrations I visited. This could have to do with the pan-cultural feel of this Sunday evening event. However, when the large Philadelphia Warehouse became available this enthusiasm for energy and largeness seems to have resulted in combining celebrations into bigger gatherings. A secondary result was that this consolidation would fill up the warehouse space, but this also resulted in fewer cultural options. Subsequently, the nine distinct cultural celebrations received less attention and eventually two larger gatherings (Sunday mornings at The Philadelphia campus and at the Crookes Mother Church campus) replaced the nine culturally distinct celebrations. Thus, the energy created at the large gatherings seems to have influenced the church to move back into contraction and consolidation.

Spiritual Formation in Dispersion

St. Thomas’ leaders built a foundational structure of small “cell” groups, eventually requiring participation in these groups as a condition of membership. Since the “clusters” were focused more on their extended family feel, the intimacy of small groups became the main teaching and discipling venue of the church. Small group leaders would meet with their “cluster leader” to go over that week’s small group lesson. The cluster leaders had already received this lesson in their weekly meeting with their “celebration” leader. The result was the teaching became a unifying connection among the expanding cell-cluster-celebration network.

Lessons to replicate:

Spiritual formation in small groups creates a flexible, indigenous discipleship environment. A small group leader meeting with people of a similar culture and often in a nearby locale, can adapt the church’s lesson plans for the small group attendees. And, if the message is not getting across or if accountability is needed, a resident small group leader can more quickly and locally meet that need.

Clusters create an extended family community that so many young people miss because their family is far away. According to former Rector Mike Breen clusters “create an extended family feel, like the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (Breen 2004).

Lessons to avoid:

Don’t overlook the importance of culturally diverse sub-congregations. When the large Philadelphia warehouse became available, a need to fill the venue replaced a focus upon the cultural diversity of nine celebrations. The church contracted from nine celebrations into two.

Be careful when absorbing outside groups because they may possess a different DNA. The NOC community was embraced by Robert Warren in part because of its similar Charismatic expressions. But, because it was not developed from within, but grafted into St. Thomas it did not have the connectedness for permanence.

Mission in Dispersion

Though it was the diverse “celebrations” that connected the church’s message to varying cultures in Sheffield, it was in the extended family feel of the clusters where commitments to Christ most often took place. Yet, clusters were initially organized to give small groups enough person-power to undertake community service. Mike Breen recalled that when a small group tried to undertake community service, only a few of the dozen or more cell attendees would actually show up. But, when the church leaders clusters two to seven small groups, if only a few from each group showed up, you would still have enough people to get something done (Breen 2011).

Lessons to replicate:

A church with multiple cultural bridges can connect with a larger segment of a community. At St. Thomas the clusters and celebrations had culturally distinct behaviors and ideas.[3] Diverse cultural options connected the church to more segments of the Sheffield population (Saxton 2011).

Clusters provide a suitable mixture of intimacy and anonymity to foster conversion. It came as a surprise to the leaders that many people came to Christ in the cluster environment (Hopkins and Breen 2007:36-37). The cluster’s mix of accountability and anonymity provided the right environment for the new Christian to focus on their commitment and their witness.

Lessons to avoid:

Fewer cross-cultural bridges can result in less connection with the community. In a desire to fill up the new Philadelphia Warehouse the church inadvertently undercut its support of the nine celebrations, eventually reducing them to just two.

Participation in the missio Dei requires diversity within unity. As St. Thomas went down the road toward a mega-church, the church mainly adopted church-wide, one-size-fits-all programs. As Johanna Saxton, an early leader, recalled, “The default position was to do something throughout the whole church. If we did an outreach, the whole church did an outreach. If we did Alpha small groups, the whole church did them and if we did nights of prayer, the whole church did it. But when we lost the Roxy we really had to disperse and this required us to culturally diversity to reach the city in an entirely new and more personal way” (Saxton 2011). Not surprisingly, the greatest periods of growth occurred in the dispersed church mode after The Roxy venue was lost and 17 clusters indigenized mission across the city (Mallon 2007:4).

Leadership in Dispersion

The loss of The Roxy created a dispersed church where “people had to really begin to sort things out for themselves. They couldn’t depend on the centre for everything. So leadership took on a much more of a dynamic, much more of a community (that) ‘we’re in this together’” (Woodhead 2007:1).

Lessons to replicate:

Small groups provide an incubator for emerging leadership. Because small groups are required of all members, at St. Thomas there was an upsurge in the number of small group leaders needed. This shortage not only resulted in greater emphasis upon leadership development but also easier routes into leadership.

A cell-cluster-celebration model creates manageable oversight. Because there are two to seven small groups in a cluster, the cluster leader does not have an unwieldy number of trainees to oversee. Celebration leaders enjoy similar ratios.

A cell-cluster-celebration model creates a leadership relationship based upon history, culture and proximity. Because an effective small group leader could be promoted to a cluster leader (while still remaining within the same cultural celebration), a leader did not need to leave their culture to move up the leadership ladder.

Breen’s Ephesus vision united the congregation through calamity and dispersion. Johanna Saxton recalls, “The story we shared had a huge role in what we did… so even if we were reaching outside of our culture, we had the shared story of being part of a church that was ‘calling a city back to God.’ The shared vocabulary helped too because we all used terms like clusters, celebrations, etc.” (Saxton 2011).

Lessons to avoid:

Leaders can make strategic decisions based on the leader’s needs and not the needs of congregants. When the leaders reduced the number of celebrations from nine to two, this was largely based upon organizational needs to fill the Philadelphia warehouse and not indigenous needs to connect with varying cultures.

Leadership at times can be overly bureaucratic and undermine a church’s health. The early leadership of Robert Warren created some strategic alliances. But, significant growth did not occur until Breen’s strategic, yet consensus-building style of leadership emerged. Breen’s forthright yet not too hasty Ephesus vision, gave the leaders a chance to absorb the significance of the vision, and God time to act on their behalf drawing them out of The Roxy.

The Rhythm of St. Tom’s

From the history and innovations, St. Thomas Church and its partner the Philadelphia Church have emerged as flexible congregations not afraid to be, in the words of Paddy Mallon, “a bit like The Acts of the Apostles: (embracing) the idea of expansion, contraction, consolidation and then you grow again” (Mallon 2007:6). It is unclear if these churches have grown recently (Saxton 2011), but the fact that they embrace an elastic model of church growth indicates they are not outcome-driven, put process-focused. It is their cultural flexibility, wed with a focus upon making disciples in a cell-cluster-celebration structure, that has allowed this unlikely Sheffield church to emerge as one of the United Kingdom’s most innovative congregations.[4]

This story is both very cool and very alien and underlines, for better or worse, the importance of buildings.

I love the dynamics that apparently are possible at the same time — the dynamics of changing such a big church so many times in such a short time frame seems almost unbelievable. I think in the Dutch context this would require dominant and top-down leadership. It also feels like a big church machine, eating up all energy by doing church leaving little for holistic incarnational presence in the neighborhood.

There are some wise lessons and remarks on church services in dispersion or more centrally, very nice! Nico-Dirk Van Loo

COMMENT by Bob Whitesel

Nico-Dirk has tendered a fascinating summataion with the phrase “both very cool and very alien and underlines, for better or worse, the importance of buildingss.” The struggle of large churches to remain missional when facilities and organizational concerns steal energy and focus is probably under studied. The cyclical journey of St. Tom’s towards, at lesast in this author’s mind, a less missional pattern today begs the continuing study of whether mega and missional can be allies. I hope they can, though I am not yet convince of this. I leave it to the next generation of leaders to prove a positive connection. Bob Whitesel

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References:

Breen, Mike. 1997. The Body Beautiful. West Sussex, England: Monarch Books.

———. 2004. The Passionate Church. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Publishing.

———. 2005. A Passionate Life. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Cook Publishing.

———. 2007. Personal Interview: June 7, 2007.

Calladine, Mal. 2007. Personal Interview: June 6, 2007.

Gibbs, Eddie. 2005. From Crossing Bridges to Building Pontoons: Regaining Lost Ground and Crossing Cultural Frontiers. Paper read at The Annual Meeting of the American Society of Church Growth, November 12, 2005, at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, Calif.

———. 2005. Leadership Next: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Gibbs, Eddie, and Ryan K. Bolger. 2005. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker.

Hiebert P. (1976) Cultural Anthropology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Hopkins, Bob, and Mike Breen. 2007. Clusters: Creative Mid-sized Missional Communities. Sheffield, England: 3D Ministries.

Hunter, George G. III. 1979. The Contagious Congregation: Frontiers in Evangelism and Church Growth. Abingdon Press.

Maconochie, Paul. 2007. Personal Interview: Sheffield, England, June 14, 2007.

Mallon, Paddy. 2003. Calling A City Back to God: A Sheffield Church, Over 2.000-strong, Most Below 40 Years Old. What Can We Learn? Eastbourne, England: Kingsway Communications Ltd.

———. 2007. Personal Interview: Phoenix, Arizona, June 8, 2007.

Saxton, Johanna. 2011. Personal Interview: Los Angeles, California, June 1, 2011.

Wagner, C. Peter. 1976. Your Church Can Grow: Seven Vital Signs of a Healthy Church. Glendale: Regal Books.

Warren, Robert. 1989. In the Crucible. Surrey, England: Highland Books.

Whitesel, Bob. 2005. The Perfect Cluster: For Young Adults, St. Tom’s, Sheffield Creates Extended Families, And Everyone Knows Where They Fit. Outreach Magazine, May/June 2005, 112-114.

———. 2006. Inside The Organic Church: Learning From 12 Emerging Congregations. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

———. 2007. Organic Change: 12 Emerging Communities of Missional Theologians. The Journal of the American Society for Church Growth 18:3-16.

Whitesel, Bob, and Kent R. Hunter. 2001. A House Divided: Bridging the Generation Gaps in Your Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Woodhead, Mick. 2007. Personal Communication: Sheffield, England, June 14, 2007.

 

[1] This history was created from personal interviews (Whitesel 2005, 2006, 2009, 2011), personal visits (2006, 2009) as well as books written by leaders of St. Thomas’ (Breen 1997, 2004; Mallon 2003; Hopkins and Breen 2007).

[2] Communicating the venue change to a large congregation flowed through of the cell-cluster-celebration structure. “…The most effective way of communication was … through four phone calls” recalled Calladine (Calladine 2007:4). The Rector would (1) call the Celebration Leaders, who would (2) call the Cluster leaders, who would then call (3) the small group leaders, who would then call (4) the small group attendees

[3] For more on cultures as “integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas and products characteristic of a society” see Paul Hiebert, Cultural Anthropology, 1976:25.

[4] Each year the church hosts a “Visitor’s Week” where attendees from around the world experience firsthand the principles of this innovative congregation.

Speaking hashtags: #Kingwood2018

SUB-CONGREGATIONS & How To Use Them to Grow a Small Church in Just 6-Steps

by Bob Whitesel D.Min. Ph.D., 2/5/15.

Are you the leader of a small church who doesn’t feel you have enough people to launch a new worship service?  Well actually you probably already have the “seeds” of a new worship service within your church.  These “seeds” are “sub-congregations” and they can be multiplied into an additional worship service by following just 6-steps.

Let me explain, leaders in very small churches may feel they do not have a sub-congregation that is large enough to have its own worship celebrations.  I noted in my chapter on “Organizational Behavior” (Foundations of Church Administration, 2010) that “sub-congregations naturally develop as a church passes 100 attendees.”  This however does not mean that you do not need to worry about them until you near 100 attendees.

Foundations COVERIn fact, to get to 100 attendees you usually will need to identify and grow your emerging sub-congregations. Let me explain.

An emerging sub-congregation is usually a group in the church around the size of a large small group (30+ attendees, though in large churches they can number in the 100s).  They are often departments (such as the music department, youth department, etc.), Sunday school classes (with 30+ attendees), or a cultural group.

Sub-congregations will have their own cultural distinctives such as behaviors, ideas and ways they serve and celebrate.  They enjoy one another’s company and they usually see themselves like his (as one person told me): “We are larger than a small group but we’re not the whole church. We are more like a ‘small church’ within the bigger church.”

The temptation is to just ignore such sub-congregations, but they are your building block to growing the church. The key is to identify these emerging sub-congregations and then find out which ones have the most likelihood of growing.  Usually their potential for growth will have to do with the demographics in the community.

Once you identify an emerging sub-congregation that has a potential to grow, you then put more energy and resources into mentoring a leader of this group, expanding it into multiple small groups (rather than the one large small group it usually is already) and giving them their own worship service (once you have 50 people in this sub-congregation).

Here is how these emerging sub-congregations were taking place in one student’s church.  The student wrote;

“We are a church that is averaging 70 people (roughly) this conference year, we do not have an abundance of sub-congregations. There is one definite sub-congregation, and is the women’s Bible study group. They meet every Tuesday morning at the church, and that is only because they became too large for the home they were meeting in. Each week, they have up to 15 women meeting. They are mostly older, with the youngest women in the group being in their fifties…. This group has met for more than the last decade… This group also connects somewhat with the unchurched community … they have been able to reach out to people in their generation that were unchurched…. As far as other sub-congregations, I really do not see any. I thought of one more – those who are in small groups. I hesitate to do this because it takes away from the women’s group, but the other two small groups also have leaders, have a pulse on those outside the church, and are generational.”

To me it looks like there is an emerging sub-congregation comprised of the two small groups that are generationally orientated.  If there are generations like these in the community, then the strategy would be the following:

1) Find out which emerging sub-congregational culture is also growing in the community.  In the example above, it might be that one of these small groups is Boomer and another Postmodern Xers.  If this was the case, then the strategic intention of this church should be to develop one of these small groups into a full-fledged sub-congregation.  The next steps are how you go about doing this.

2)  Mentor an indigenous leader from the culture you identified in Step 1 who will bring together a small group of this indigenous culture.  This will be the spiritual leader and figure-head of this emerging sub-congregation. They should be a mature Christian leader (c.f. 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9) who can submit to the lead pastor of the congregation. This is very important, for the church must become a united “multi-cultural” congregation. Thus, the leaders of each cultural sub-congregation must be bridge-builders across cultural gaps.

3) Get the existing small group to plant another group like themselves. This is where the real work takes place.  Often people don’t like to split up their group, so don’t try to force them to divide. Rather, encourage them to reach more people by starting another group like themselves at another time or place. Show them how this will help them reach out to more people of their culture (e.g. generation, ethnicity, etc.) through offering a new small group that newcomers of their culture can fit into.  The best way to start a new small group is to ask the existing small group to be its sponsor, and for anyone who feels led (usually two apprentices from the existing small group) to form the new group. This is called “seeding” a new small group, where a couple leaders and a few people volunteer to start this new small group.

4)  Cluster or network your small groups at least once a quarter. By this I mean get your small groups from the same emerging sub-congregation together at least once every three months for unity building.  Help them build identity, sometimes with a name.  The leader (of Step 2) must be a unifier between the various small groups of the emerging sub-congregation.

5)  Create more small groups as new ones approach 12 in attendance.  Use the small group “seeding” strategy of Step 3 above.  And, use Step 4 to keep these new small groups “clustering” once a quarter with other small groups of their cultural sub-congregation.

6)  Once you have a total of 50 people in your small group network, or cluster, create a new and regular worship encounter for them. This then becomes the new worship encounter for this emerging sub-congregation.  (Notice that like John Wesley, small groups [class meetings] are created before big worship gatherings [society meetings].)

Once COVER Gospel After Christendomyou have reached Step 6, your emerging sub-congregation has officially emerged 🙂

This can be done over and over again, with as many sub-congregations as needed.  I have analyzed some congregations of only 1,000 attendees and found they are comprised up of 7+ sub-congregations (see my chapter “From Gathered to Scattered: Saint Thomas Church of Sheffield” in The Gospel After Christendom, ed. Ryan Bolger (2012).  The key to growing a church, is to strategically spot and develop these emerging sub-congregations. That is how you manage organizational behavior in a church … by growing and leading sub-congregations.

FELLOWSHIP & Why Is Robin Dunbar Killing My Church!? #DunbarNumber

by Bob Whitesel, 4/4/14

One thing Donald McGavran emphasized is that we should not be shy about applying the sciences to our study of church health and growth. And the Dunbar Number can explain why many churches plateau in size.  Here Is how I explained the Dunbar Number at the request of a colleague of mine Dr. Gary McIntosh at Biola University:

The Dunbar number is a sociological theory (based in physiology) that people can best relate to an extended group of about 150 individuals. By keeping this in mind, factories have been created with under 150 employees where unity and self-identity are higher. This of course has ramifications for the church, and explains in my mind the cohesiveness of these church-style Dunbar groups:

> missional communities (3dm ministries and Mike Breen)

> sub-congregations, such as venues, multiple sites, campuses, Whitesel and Hunter in A House Divided (2001).

> clusters (St. Tom’s Church of Sheffield, see Whitesel “From Gathered to Scattered: St. Tom’s Church,” a chapter in Ryan K. Bolger, Gospel After Christendom, Baker Academic Books, 2010 (http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-after-Christendom-Expressions/dp/0801039436).  The proliferation of Dunbar-sized “clusters” seems to be an explanation for St. Tom’s rapid growth after losing their large venue, The Roxy in Sheffield, UK.

Thus, church growth may be helped by the the multiplication of Dunbar groups within a congregation.  Wikipedia has a good article on the Dunbar Number

Also, read this good overview in an article on the “Dunbar Number” by National Public Radio, titled: “Don’t Believe Facebook, You Only Have 150 Friends.”

Here are some quotes:  “MARTIN: The factories were capped at 150 people, and Bill Gore found things worked better. People knew each other. They worked better together. DUNBAR: Everybody had the same label on their jacket that said GORE-TEX Associate, and that was that. Everybody knew who was who – who was the manager, who was the accountant, who made the sandwiches for lunch. ”

A student of mine once responded:  “I can see how having multiple services to create community for groups of 150 people is necessary.  What I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around is how you avoid tensions and problems between the different community groups within the church.  In the example above the GORE-TEX associates knew who the manager was and the accountant was and so on…I wonder and I’m just guessing here, do problems arise because the multiple services leads to multiple ‘managers’ which leads to conflicting ideas and different needs that need to be met?”

Here is my response:

Hello (name); Yes, you are right, there is tension. But, by keeping people as part of the same church organizational structure you work out our differences.  The problem in most of today’s churches is when conflict arises we don’t address it, we just bless them and send them out to start a new church to their liking. This creates conflict-avoidance. Thus, churches become enclaves of unified, but uni-cultural people.  And as thus, many people can’t relate to our fractured nature.

The key is to have diversity, within one organization which then creates unity or E pluribus unum.  To obtain this, see the “Exercises for Unity” in The Healthy Church (2012)